I Write for Readers: H.D. Hunter
Going to jail. The funny sidekick. Dodging bullets. The fetishized love interest.
Four descriptions that became the narrative norm for Black boy characters in children's literature.
But what about the Black boys just living life? The ones throwing a ball, playing video games, or shooting hoops with the boys from around the block? Where are the tales of the Black boys falling in love, fulfilling the chosen one destiny, overthrowing evil rulers, or figuring out who they are and becoming who they want to be?
They exist. They live, they laugh, they love, they cry, and they smile. Sometimes they even frown, make not-so-good choices, and punch a wall. But whatever they feel, whatever they experience, it is valid and unique. Because just like any other character, their stories breathe life into words, connecting to those who turn the pages.
And the biggest truth of them all---THEY READ.
So what did author H.D. Hunter do?
He put the pen to paper and created stories for them. Stories that will let them know, "I see you, and you matter. Keep reading, son."
1. Welp, the first question for these sort of things usually is the ‘how did you get your agent’ question, but you have quite a bit of published works to your name--a novella, a short story, and an upcoming MG trilogy and YA contemporary novel. So, please tell us about your journey into traditionally published novels.
Haha, sure. I started self-publishing in 2016. I had always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t take the traditional pathway through school with a creative writing focus or an MFA. I published a coming-of-age novella focused on mental health in 2018 which became somewhat of a hit with middle and high school teachers around the nation, so I had the chance to travel, run writing workshops for students, and talk about literature in a bunch of different environments.
I started feeling like the next step in my writing journey was to pursue traditional publishing, just to ease the process of the “business” of writing for myself and to reach a broader audience with my work. I met Lamar Giles on social media and pestered him into mentoring me (sorry, LG!). His guidance and wisdom has always been invaluable. He introduced me to other writers, including Dhonielle Clayton, who I get to work with on my traditional debut, a middle-grade series called Futureland.
Even though I was starting to meet writers and have all this good luck with networking, I still wanted to write upper YA and I still didn’t have an agent. I finished one manuscript that flopped in the query stages, and then wrote another that would become Something Like Right (SLR). I turned down help from other authors when it came to connecting me with agents because I was scared someone would agree to represent me based on a recommendation and not their genuine feelings about my work.
So, I entered PitMad in 2019, got some bites from agents on a pitch about SLR, and connected with Leah Pierre at Ladderbird Literary Agency. It’s really a divine pairing in so many ways, and I’m so grateful for her. I finished drafting Futureland with Cake Literary and Dhonielle, finished revising SLR with Leah, sold them both within four months in multi-book deals. So, y’all will be seeing a lot of me from 2022 to 2024.
2. With traditional publishers calling for open submissions and writers finding other venues of furthering their writing careers, many have begun to ask what’s the need for having an agent? What’s your advice to writers about finding an agent for their work?
I totally feel that “success” as a writer is defined on our own terms. So, my first advice is really to decide what a successful writing career looks like for you. It very well may be something you can achieve without an agent. I had a lot of fun self-publishing and I learned so much. Before I ever had representation, my career was fulfilling.
The power of people is our greatest resource. Connections, relationships, communication -- before the ink dries, before the books hit shelves, it all starts with people knowing people. I have no doubt that some authors can find great success navigating the publishing industry and the networking it demands. They can maybe even become subject matter specialists on a lot of the nitty-gritty publishing details.
But truth be told, I want to write. I’ve run the business side of my own publishing before and I’m still eager to be involved in the operations now with my traditional novels. But ultimately, I want to write and I want to run workshops for students. That’s it.
And a good agent is not only someone who is going to champion your work and make sales for you and and and and -- they’re going to be a person who helps ease that process -- the writing process -- for you. They’re going to build those connections, manage those relationships, stay on top of that communication so you can focus on what matters. And to me, that’s well worth sharing the journey with them.
3. Your forthcoming MG trilogy is comped to Black Panther and Westworld (I’m automatically sold on it, and I don’t even read middle grade lol) but it also deals with the characters experiencing going to public school for the first time. Would you call this novel a genre mash-up? If so, did you always know this book idea would mesh genres or did it just become that way?
Haha, yeah! It’s such a cool concept. There’s some science fiction in there, there’s some mystery, there’s a little coming-of-age. I think the beauty of this novel is that Dhonielle and the Cake Literary team are plot gurus. So, working with them to build the world and the story produced a really robust plot development. Meanwhile, I’m a character writer who is still growing my competency in strong plotting.
So, the emotional beats, the heart and soul of the characters -- all of that matters so much to me. It’s really a mashup of genres, styles, and ideas in the best way that a packaged book can be. I think the cool thing about partnering up to write a book is that you never know what’s going to happen, but I really feel that at each step, we’ve been open to where the story is trying to take us, and I’m excited to see what the world thinks when release time comes.
4. In regards to genre labels, do you think they can be limiting for authors? Should agents and others involved in publishing be more open to books that cross genres?
Haha, I recently taught a workshop to high school students using sampling in music production as a way to understand creative renditions, retellings, and spiritual sequels in literature. To me, art is about collaboration and inspiration, across genres, across generations, across dimensions of reality, even.
I know that it helps us as humans to have our little categories and put our little things in them -- I do it too. But art is so expansive and boundless that I always appreciate when we can catch ourselves and say, “hey, we don’t know exactly what this is, but it’s great,” instead of trying to alter it or stuff it into an easily understandable paradigm.
And I would encourage all of us -- writers, readers, agents, editors, to interrogate our urge to alter and stuff whenever we feel ourselves slipping.
5. Your YA book, Something Like Right, centers a Black male MC dealing with things usually seen in books with female protagonists(first love, parent relationships, etc.) There has been some conversation about books breaking away from treating BIPOC characters as a monolith. Do you think your books will show a different side to Black boys than what has been seen in books? Did you have any challenges relating to this when you were seeking publication with this story?
The questions you’re asking are my greatest wishes for the book.
Offering a look at Black boys in different situations than we usually get from media portrayals. Opening up conversations around family dynamics and generational trauma. Showing young Black boys with emotional intelligence and romantic desire that is more than just lust or objectification.
Those boys exist. They always have. And I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time to help uplift those portrayals.
I don’t think it's uncommon for BIPOC writers writing #ownvoices stories to face challenges with industry decision-makers ‘relating’ to the stories, unfortunately. I mean this as respectfully as I can when I say I’m not writing for editors or executives. I’m writing for kids. If the kids relate, that’s how I win. That’s how we win together. I actually desire to be the type of writer that makes folks uncomfortable in what they assume or take for granted that they understand. That’s how we push conversations forward and break new ground with our art.
I’m honored and super excited to have landed with Trisha de Guzman at FSG with Something Like Right. She understands the story, the space I need to tell it, and what it could mean to the kids that are waiting on it, and those who aren’t even aware that they’re waiting. I wish I could put the book into hands today.
6. Working on multiple books can be a task. Keeping character voices separate, jumping tones, changing settings, etc. How do you do it? What are your tips?
One practical tip is that I sprint and stop. I’ll give myself two weeks to work to a point on a draft of a book and then set it down. Give it to my agent or an editor. Get it out of my hands. Take a few days away from pages as a palate cleanser and then do the same with another project. It helps me to give my brain those sequential breaks and explicit ‘starts’ and ‘stops’ to reground myself project by project.
Another is that I keep really thorough notes! LOL. I have pages and pages of character background, setting research, outlines chapter by chapter. I know I can’t possibly remember everything all at once, so I use the tools at my disposal to help future me. When I stow away some information or save a link or jot a note, I’m giving my future self a hand, and it’s always appreciated.
7. Tell us more about the Southern District. How would you define it? What is its purpose and vision and vision? Where do you see the idea in the next five years?
The Southern District is the title of my first ever published short story. It’s about a kid who deals with isolation and depression during his first year in college, very far away from home, a theme I would consider autobiographical.
The name came from a dream I had one night where I was walking through this huge mall or department store called The Southern District. As far as I could discern from the dream, it seemed to be the kind of place that you could get everything you needed, tangible and intangible, to make your dreams come true.
A really affirming space, a space that brings out the best in you and allows you to be yourself. When I established my company to start self-publishing, it felt like the right name to use, so it’s a big part of my brand now.
I hope that as my career progresses I can pump resources into TSD to establish a teen writing incubator. I would love to help BIPOC teens publish their own work and learn about the entrepreneurial aspects of the writing industry. Stay tuned.
8. You were mentored by notable authors. Can you tell us what that was like? The ways in which it helped you as an author?
Lamar Giles is my personal mentor and Dhonielle Clayton, who also helped found WNDB, runs Cake Literary, so I’ve benefited greatly from knowing and working with both of them in other capacities. If BIPOC publishing was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s like I’m not in the feature films, but I made it to the li’l crossover shows they put on Netflix.
9. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
I love basketball. I played basketball from the time I was a kid through most of college. It was the first thing that ever inspired any self-confidence in me, and my inner child is still very stimulated by positive basketball experiences. If I wake up early and go to the court, shoot for twenty minutes, it can really shape the trajectory of my entire day. I like massages and hikes and acupuncture and all sorts of other relaxing things too, but there’s something about giving back to myself at the court that beats everything else.
I think society conditions us to remain in a constant state of burnout risk. I left the work-force to focus on writing full time in 2019, and I’m not saying that giving up that
stability and guaranteed income has been easy. But it has given me more freedom and autonomy over my time. And what I try to do with that autonomy is remind myself to take space and cultivate a practice of rest, pacing, and leisure as a part of my daily and weekly routines, not just when I feel like I need it. It’s hard. I’m working on it, though.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
10. Part of your brand seems to involve a lot of work in schools and both of your books deal with educational settings. So, let’s say you were hired as a guest professor at a university and you’ve been given the freedom to create a class. What would the class be?
Oooh, this is so good! I’m trying to think of a way to mashup all the things I love LOL, but they’re all so random and disparate. I love horror movies, true crime, WNBA basketball, and cartoons. I think my course would literally just be watching all these things across the semester and students can write their thoughts on them. Free Writing with no stakes. Just bring your ideas and let’s talk about them, write about them. Critical papers, inspired fiction or non-fiction, whatever. As long as they’re writing and talking.
I’ll probably get fired and I’m not sure this will meet any learning objectives. But it’ll be fun. And like Kurt Cobain said, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
11. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
Books should be shorter! Abolish the arbitrary standards around length in genre and form. The movies Arrival, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and 1922 are based on 30 to 135 page stories. There’s more than enough content in short stories and shorter books to be dynamic and expansive. I’m also dyslexic and have a really hard time reading long books because I read very slowly, so long-book authors, please don’t be mad at me. I mostly just have FOMO.
12. Give us your top three loc care tips:
I only have one tip. Find a great loctician in your area, follow all the directions they give you, and don’t jump from chair to chair. Shoutout to Jahleela, I’ll be back by there soon! Lol.
Bio: Hugh “H.D.” Hunter (he/him) is a storyteller, teaching artist, and community organizer raised and based in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s the author of several books, including an Afrofuturist middle grade series called 'Futureland' (Random House, 2022). He loves vegan snacks, basketball, and is, according to some, the world’s fastest reviser. Follow him @hd_tsd.
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